Jane Jacobs takes on Robert Moses in Citizen Jane

Ah, development: if there’s one topic (well, besides the pros and cons of antifa and the composition of BOLT) likely to cause internecine conflict in Berkeley, this is it. If you’re reading this you probably have some pretty strong feelings about how your city deals with ‘urban renewal’ — is the City Council in the back pocket of developers, or are they standing in the way of much needed change and progress?

Such arguments regularly take place between NIMBYs and YIMBYs across the country, but in the immediate wake of World War II, slum clearance and redevelopment, in the form of brutalist high-rise tower blocks, super highways, and pedestrian-unfriendly streets, were the consensus choice. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 28) details the struggle as it played out in New York between the advocates of a futuristic Big Apple and those who saw value in preserving the best aspects of the old.

Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, Citizen Jane examines the political and bureaucratic battles fought by Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Moses was the ultimate New York power broker, a man who was never elected to public office yet (at one point) held no fewer than twelve different titles; Jacobs, in contrast, was a neighborhood activist and freelance writer whose book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became (and remains) a favorite among city planners.

An evangelist of urban renewal, Moses was fanatically devoted to clearing away the city’s tenements, which in his opinion could never be made habitable. His stubborn, obsessive personality is on display throughout Citizen Jane, standing in sharp contrast to his canny and flexible opponent, who outmaneuvered him on more than one occasion.

During the 1950s and ’60s Jane Jacobs lived in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood threatened by Moses’ plan to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Extending from the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge with a southern extension leading to the Manhattan Bridge, the Expressway would have exposed large sections of Soho and Little Italy to the wrecking ball and significantly changed the complexion of the city.

Jacobs would have none of it, and Tyrnauer’s film shows how she helped preserve Lower Manhattan through a combination of tireless organizing and ground-level political warfare. Though she had no professional training in urban studies, Jacobs’ theories – that ‘urban renewal’ was not the rebuilding of cities, but the sacking of them; that “a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street” – struck a chord with residents, who eagerly rallied to her cause and helped permanently monkey-wrench Moses’ plan.

In addition to the standard array of talking heads (including gadfly James Kunstler, former Mayor Ed Koch, and architect Geeta Mehta, who describes modern China as “Moses on steroids”), Citizen Jane features a generous selection of archival footage, including some terrific postwar color sequences. A fine Jane Antonia Cornish score, echoing Philip Glass’s score for Godfrey Reggio’s prophetic 1983 cinematic essay, Koyaanisqatsi, provides suitable musical accompaniment to this excellent documentary.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...